Black Belt (UK - DVD R2)
Our Marcus takes a deep breath and enjoys some straight up martial arts...
1932. The Japanese army decide to take over karate dojos for their own military use. When three karate masters stand up to them and win, the stress of the situation is too much for their Sensei and the three have no choice but to join the army and try to take their master’s teaching with them in their new lives. The three students then begin a journey to retain their master’s vision of what the black belt represents and to keep their honour despite the pressures around them.
For the longest time Black Belt’s only aim is to show the subtle baddassary of karate. Four masters of the martial art and loads of soldiers mixed with some precise moves to show up the uniformed men is a simple strategy to make you want to see these guys win. No punches or kicks, nothing overly violent, just blocks, thrusts and using one's inner strength to win a fight, always aiming to keep the black belt untainted and strong in memory of their fallen Sensei. It’s full of all that deep and meaningful stuff that draws us all to martial arts and despite its overuse in cinema it still totally works here as a tool to get us behind our heroes.
The key to Black Belts' enjoyment is it never gets flashy. This is just three guys doing some fantastic karate for all the right reasons. No one goes flying through the air or shows off their skills; there are no wannabe cool camera tricks or effects and no one has a signature mannerism that sets them apart. These genuinely feel like three relatively normal guys who are great at what they do and the simplicity of the fights and the limitations we are made aware of makes it exciting. On top of that we have the personal journeys they are on and this adds all the dramatic weight the story needs to carry it through its quietness. Black Belt isn’t the flashy martial arts movie we’ve all grown accustomed to. It’s not fast, it’s not showy, it holds back and makes the skill about honour and using one's own strength and while many a movie uses these themes, this one somehow makes it a lot more down to earth.
The transfer here is pretty damn soft with slightly off colours that either feel dull or in regards to the red in the soldier's uniforms or dotted about the film a tiny bit blown out. That said the variation of colours from foliage greens and browns to characters' costumes all look quite good within the frame and give the movie a nice look without being over stylised. There’s the odd bit of grain, especially in wide shots of the sky or in large portions of white costumes but for the most part the transfer appears quite clean and while it’s not a presentation to get excited about its consistent throughout and has the odd highlight, even if the softness prevents it from really shining.
This is almost a silent film for a fair while and never really lifts beyond the odd piece of score. The majority of the track is simply the sounds of steady breathing, repetitive punching and quiet times between the karate students. The only step up is usually soft spoken dialogue, swooshing arms and legs and the odd bit of solider shouting but it's the quietness here that really creates a mood for the movie and generates a strong feeling of the characters' journeys through their individual predicaments.
The making of (15:27) shows us on set footage and introduces us to the actors who are genuine martial artists. There’s plenty of rehearsal footage and clips from the film and to just about cobble it all together a voice over that gives ever so brief explanations. The only other extras are the theatrical trailer (01:59) and the TV spot (00:32).
Black Belt was one of the most low key martial arts movies I’d seen in a while and while some might label that as dull I felt that it got back to the basics of what made martial arts so appealing to me as a kid. The fighting here is top notch but in a very realistic way and more importantly it felt like it was for something other than to look cool and take down bad guys.
The disc is pretty standard transfer wise with a quiet yet effective audio track and the extras are pretty thin but if you're after some realistic martial arts on display then there’s not much more out there that delivers as much of a punch as this.
Review by Marcus Doidge
Suitable only for persons of 15 years and over
Release Date: 8th August 2011
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Japanese, Dolby Digital 2.0 English
Extras: Making of, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Shunichi Nagasaki
Cast: Akihito Yagi, Tatsuya Naka, Yuji Suzuki
Genre: Action and Drama
Length: 91 minutes
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